Is it possible to counter the ‘Great Resignation’?

The rise in vacancies is great news for job hunters, but not so good for employers wanting to hang on to star talent, says Daniel Wheatley

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Working in HR, it’s unlikely you’ve gone a day in the past 18 months without hearing the notorious term the ‘Great Resignation’. Coined by Professor Anthony Klotz, the term refers to a predicted swell of people leaving their jobs in the wake of the pandemic either because they had put off resignation during a lockdown or because the pandemic had highlighted their desire for a better work-life balance. Just as we were getting our heads around the idea of the Great Resignation, Professor Ranjay Gulati repositioned it as the ‘Great Rethink’, emphasising how employees are trying to adjust their relationship not just with their employer, but with the whole concept of employment. 

Analysis of Office for National Statistics data for 2021 offers some insight into this phenomenon in the UK context. It suggests two mechanisms: first, that employees would have delayed or avoided job moves during the height of the pandemic as this would leave them ineligible for furlough. Second, job vacancies dipped significantly in the early part of the pandemic as businesses did not want to risk recruiting at a time of uncertainty when demand for their goods and services was unpredictable and wildly fluctuating. As the economy has emerged from the pandemic and confidence increased, so too have job vacancies and moves – indeed, vacancies in the UK rose to a record high between December 2021 and March 2022. This is great news for jobseekers, but less so for employers that are keen to hang on to star talent.

My work at the University of Birmingham Business School, and recently my research conducted in partnership with the CIPD and published in its Good Work Index 2022, shows that one in five employees in the UK may quit their job within the next 12 months, with better pay, work-life balance and job satisfaction being the primary motivations. So how can you navigate this new world of work? Addressing job quality is key to employee retention, and flexibility is central to this. 

As much as Jacob Rees-Mogg might wish otherwise, it is clear that remote and hybrid working is here to stay. Among those surveyed for the Good Work Index, 46 per cent reported working in a hybrid arrangement as of February 2022. Meanwhile, recent evidence has proven the common sense notion that most workers prefer more flexibility over work hours. After all, who wouldn’t prefer being able to flex their work time to pick up their children from school, meet up with friends or simply be at home rather than battling through the daily rush hour. Working at home can also increase inclusivity, as it offers enhanced accessibility for those who may find employment in standard workplace environments difficult because of caring responsibilities or disability, for example.

It’s not only employees who stand to benefit from increased hybrid working – organisations can slash hefty office costs by switching to a hybrid model while enjoying increased productivity from workers. Moreover, my research has shown that hybrid working is an important part of overall job satisfaction and plays a big role in employee retention.

Alongside flexibility in working practices, adopting a holistic approach that improves all aspects of workplace wellbeing is key to attracting and retaining talent. Based on our research undertaken as part of the Good Work Index, and my recently published book Well-being and the Quality of Work Lives, I would make the following eight recommendations to employers to help counter the Great Resignation:

  1. Put in place appropriate policies, processes and resources to support flexible working, including remote and hybrid working.
  2. Establish a workplace culture in which both employees and employers understand that, to be successful, flexibility must work both ways, including managing expectations around how time is split between the workplace and home, hours of work and delivery of outputs.
  3. Use flexibility as an enabler of workforce diversity by tailoring working routines to individual needs, while ensuring that routines are coordinated to fit into the wider organisational context.
  4. Issue good practice guidance for maintaining physical and mental health when working flexibly.
  5. Provide the correct and relevant equipment to enable working from several locations.
  6. Establish social and work-focused connections within teams via regular formal and informal meetings.
  7. Adapt the physical employer workplace environment with a focus on collaborative use, enabling formal and informal connection and working in hybrid formats (for example, hybrid meeting facilities), while also providing concentration spaces.
  8. Move away from a one-size-fits-all model towards a flexible strategy that will enable a tailored approach offering employees flexibility and agency in decision-making. 

While I can’t promise that you’ll never hear the term Great Resignation again, this strategy will help insulate your business from the impact of the current cultural shift in attitudes towards employment.

Dr Daniel Wheatley is a reader in business and labour economics at Birmingham Business School